Notes and Reflections
The poet Gerard de Nerval is much forgotten these days more than a century after he passed, or if he is read at all it is to an academic tune, and then he is forgotten. But Nerval is a poet to whom I turn again and again. Neither years nor changing taste have levied against the charm he exerts upon me. His Aurelia and the sequence of poems Les Chimeras from the first time I read them so thoroughly intoxicated me that I am changed because of them. And last night, having come across several translations into English of texts I had not previously known, but which certainly remind me of the enchanting Sylvie, in which Nerval returns to his youthful haunts around Paris, a Paris that no longer exists save in the sensibility his words carry, precious and musical words even in English, I too am carried away. A longing for the lost, the ruined, the dead pervades me. And I wonder, amidst images depopulated by time, echoes of former lives and places, why it is that I have loved, and continue to love, places and spaces thrust to the margins of our hysterical lives. Is it only the silence, variable to the wind and the cry of birds, settling in here or there, that calls me to them: abandoned lots, empty buildings, burned out wharves where the waves of the Hudson lap up against struts of twisted steel and iron? Is it only here that I feel free enough to dream, following the scent of a weed flowering up through buckled pavement, or listening, quite still, to the distant hum of some yet invisible engine or siren? And is it here, in a mental space that carries with it enough store of sensations to satisfy my every want, that I recall, more vividly, an apparition: my father and mother, those years of long ago, before I was born and when as a child, even then called to empty lots, quiet alleys, lonely outposts where I could, or so I thought then, find something of myself I could not before and against the elements?
Such thoughts do not exist in a void, either personal or historical. And born as I was some five years after the conclusion to WWII, with that tragedy still echoing throughout the world, I also embody it. My longing for ruins returns me to a time my parents lived through but which I did not. It is a time they carried within them and which, all too wrongly, they sought to protect me from. It is a time that they struggled through on their own, and which conditioned much of their lives thereafter.
My love for destroyed spaces becomes the means with which I plumb the savageries of mass murder and the technologies of conquest. Real and fantastical, fearful and nostalgic, it leads me backwards and forwards from the Gothic, the Romantic, to the horrific, the torturous, the spectral. And it becomes, as Hegel knew so well -- the “hand that creates the wound being the hand that heals it” -- a means to subvert the oppressions carried there.
Nor does it matter that I pick up the thread several years later, never having disowned it. Nor is it less true, or less revealing of a personal truth, for having encountered the aftermath of a brutality that inscribes ruins wherever it turns, hungry for victims, murder and war. For as it was then, when I first began these notes, so it is now.
I am no more than five or six. It is a brilliant windy mid morning topped by those fleeting New York clouds that have always typified the city for me, this place I call home. My father, brother and I are walking down the Grand Concourse to attend religious services at a nearby temple, a squat Greek affair with the density of a bunker pitched against the concussions of the age. It is Yom Kippur, the first of the high holy days.
Gathered on the steps are men in black coats, talis and yarmulke, smoking and talking. On the street, just several feet from the curb before them, is the outline of a body drawn in chalk: a new traffic fatality. Perhaps a few men are discussing the accident, perhaps not. But I am drawn to the image on the street; more than drawn, magnetized. I stop and stare, terrified of the emptiness that the outline defines till my father ushers me away.
Here was a man, obviously a man, that much at least I know; a man who was. It is death, perhaps the first time I have encountered death by chance, human death, and the poignancy of the moment inspires; that cold stupefaction that takes the place of emotion and which leaves me as if struck by something so alien and so intimate that my words, even now, carry the difference without explanation.
But I also sense something else, a cunning fixation that suspends in mutual orbit the temple given to prayers and supplication, a collective presence seeking absence in ritual absolution, and this absence that was once a life present to those near and far from him.
And this, for me, becomes a key into a history that goes by the name Holocaust. For when I entered the temple and sat in the pew, glancing through a book in a foreign tongue I did not understand, I sensed that I had exchanged places with that man who died on the street and who now bore no reference save the chalk white silhouette of his body at the moment of death. I became his death as it passed into time, and lost my time as I did so. I became an empty death, a life emptied of death, a death voided of life, of continuity, memory and memorial: a horrific negative of death whose only significance lay in its insubstantiality.
And as I listened to the Cantor intone and the audience respond, not knowing how or why, sitting in silence out of respect for my father, I realized that Judaism, that being a Jew, forever tied me to a negation I could not grasp; a negation that had grasped me, and which would thereafter keep me in its grasp: the concentration camps, the living dead who survived and the dead masses who did not.
And in the temple my anger rose on a spinning head of nausea. For here, in this language and place, the ceiling far distant above me, the eternal light flickering over the dais, the torah lifted from its curtained case and unrolled for reading, I too was lost, having lost myself to an alien form, no matter how rooted by blood I was to it. I was one of the lost, the emptied, the awe struck. I was the presence out there on the street that several noticed and others did not. I was the absence that they fled from, the atonement they embraced. I was the presence my parents avoided with a scrupulousness that bordered on the neurotic; as if it weren’t there; as if the recent waves of blood were not rising around them; as if they could forget, then forget that they wished to forget; as if I were the child they would nurture on thick amnesias, silence and fear.
I became the ruin of a culture that they, with all the power of their assembled grief in Kaddish, could not erase. I rose on their words, pulled by the incantation, the murmurs, the guttural intonations, as if I were weightless, a figment of a boy, and I choked down the disgust spreading its poisonous vapors through me.
In that empty sign left on the street my destiny began to sprout -- limbs, eyes, ears, hands, feet -- irrespective of the hopes granted me. And wherever I sought myself I found, buried or not, the semblance of a judgment that pursued me, that I pursue: I am not the man I believe I am nor other than that man. I have lived a double life that lives me, that seeks clarity in my actions, and who I disclaim as much as I admit.
On that street, before a squat concrete temple, I became the enigma of a bodiless corpse multiplied by 6 million corpses that bore the name, Jew.
I am haunted by ruins, yes, and I find within them an imperishable echo that disavows loss without losing its alien touch.
Here is a path that winds from somewhere to nowhere and back again, an old path coruscated by time, forgotten by men, a path that leads and follows, that appears and disappears, an absent path, a distant path, a path I cannot touch without touching those dear to me, without touching the emptiness of their absence, the presence of their emptiness before life and in life, their living in death and dying of life, their solitude and magnanimity, intelligence and stupidity, trembling and courage to face the fear they flee and flee the courage they face.
Here is a path that leaves me forsaken, forsaking all else despite me.
Even the bodies of women became craters of absence, distant forbidding temples of desire that I entered in solitude and left in solitude, transformed by intimacies too dear, too distant to recall. And while I loved them, and their love filled me with promise, with hope, there was something still alien, a caesurae in an otherwise exceptional embrace, a swift slipping away in which I felt myself inhabited by nameless others I did not know, I had never known, save in the voices I gave them, and in which, bereft of a voice uniquely my own, I sought myself…within the cold white fire of poems, the veritable heart of the flame, a vacuum that contoured blue heat about it – the very place I was and was not; could love and could not. And which compassion failed to quench or intensify.
The poem, which drew about it specters of ruin and pleasure, extenuated by a single vibrating string of words, of sentiments, that found within the absence I inhabited, an inhibited being sustained by metaphor, by the specter of language, which became, in my delirium, the decapitated flare of its shadow, the lamp smashed in your uterus, a volcano of Maypoles, incandescent vapor, two rails converging at their point of disappearance, mouth of dice beside the blue swathe of the umbrella’s chariot, the violence of sunlight on pearl.
I used the poem to haunt a human touch, to conjure corporeal ignition, to invent and re-invent distilled transparencies between she and I.
I invested in poems the magic of living through them. I wished nothing more than to seize language as it transformed into flesh and back again into language.
I did not know then how little it mattered whether I succeeded or failed.
Ruins do not admit of surcease. They are curses flung at presence, plentitude. They mock me by drinking in the present then spewing it out again dismembered. They sell my fictions to the wind, the sky, with the damp odor of rotting wood. And they rise, chanting
Ma seule etoile est morte – et mon luth constelle
Porte le Soliel noir de la Melancolie
They rise, chanting
They rise, chanting
Name without body, bodiless name...
They rise against the tumult of the world, beautiful rancid shadows where silence breeds pederasts in stone and wild flowers crown mounds of rust. They raise monuments to stunning airy torment, the impalpable anguish of living in time to timeless death, as if by being there, at the end of the street, around that corner, beyond the valley, in this grove of trees, at the mouth of the river, beside an ancient cave, I am assured of a memory I wish to forget.
On a cold winter night in January 1855, on the 26th of that month to be exact, Nerval hanged himself in the rue de la Vielle-Lanterne.
The poet dead now for a century and a half raises again the music of his ruin in poems of exceptional despair… … where sudden gestures foliate forgotten looms…
Scene 1: Just off the coast of the small Moroccan port town, Essaouira, stands a Moorish fort destroyed by Portuguese bombardment some 300 years ago. When the tide is out, you can easily wade the distance to it. With an incoming tide, you can swim against the current. But proximity to the beach does little to erase its appeal as a ruin par excellence. Thirty years ago I stood on that beach by day and night obsessed by the ragged silhouette of the remaining structure: turrets seemingly half-destroyed by lightening, eroded gaping holes in the black wave washed stone, muffled concussive booms issuing from some still standing cellar (the lung of the old edifice), early stars just burning through the thickening blue above it. Much forgotten by the townsfolk, isolated and alone, sentinel of disaster, echo of rage, I praised its mute wisdom and opened myself to its sharp corrosive tongue, heedless to the cares of a destitute world. And I took from the stone its hideous neglect, an artificial wound reclaimed by the sea, and found therein a key to convulsive marvels that poetry inspires then, as now.
For here did Shelley rage and, after him, Maturin. And here Lautremont found his name, Artaud his pain, Duprey his death...
Scene 2: River Road that runs beside the Mississippi just west of New Orleans shelters the legacy of the Southern slavocracy, the great plantation homes that go by the names Belle Helen, Oak Alley, San Francisco, Tezzcuco, Houmus House, and more. Magnificence, splendor and charm effloresce there in that heavy humid air. Tourists flock to them, now as then, to glimpse what was but is not. Amidst flowery perfumes and the buzz of insects, the mind drifts, drugged by the heat. It is easy to imagine that former time, and however alien it seems its power, culture, beauty and brutality are close, too close! And though the pleasures that come, come streaked by envy and fear – yesteryear’s mask, today’s compulsion -- there are other places nearby not nearly so open: an “African” graveyard half buried by the spreading loam and weeds. Curious iron sculpts -- grave markers! -- part Voodoun veves, part sculptor’s brand, lean askew, beacons of rust for the long impoverished dead. No one has touched them, no one dares. For this ruin whispers in tones of slow rustling leaves, and in the comforting breeze disinherited days anguish still. The violence done then is a violence transformed.
What do these symbols say that has not been said of death since time began: we live, we struggle, we triumph, we suffer, we pass like a burst of mid-afternoon thunder and the rushing iron wind that brings on the rain, the sudden torrent, the thrashing water that falls from a burning sky.
And then we rot…
Scene 3: Even in the greatest of cities chimeras stand, artifacts of a past that continue to haunt those sensitive to the difference between then and now, the useful and the useless. In New York, balanced by Manhattan’s eastern bank and Brooklyn’s opposite shore is a thin rocky island that carries the name, Roosevelt. Linked to Manhattan by bridge, aerial tram and subway, it is largely given over on its northern end to middle-class apartment high-rises. Its southern tip tells a different story, though, that dates back to the mid-19th century and fledging efforts to care for those in need. On this rocky point are the remnants of the first smallpox hospital in New York. Dwarfed by the city that grew around it, the place attracts those for whom loss and ruin are signs of a vivacity that irony infuses but does not abuse.
Gaunt Gothic hulks surrounded by high weeds and a chain link fence quite easily passable then, I came to know the hospital and its two structures intimately during the early 1980s, when several friends and I visited the place by day and night, stirred by its having endured. Nor did it matter to us that much of the interior had collapsed leaving the outer walls, inner stairways and parts of several fractured floors still standing, empty but for the day or night.
Where wards once stood huge wild trees had taken root, and on the upper parapets, as if at some fantastical castle, birds would roost.
Built just prior to the Civil War, the hospital began admitting patients in 1856 both to ensure their quarantine and to sustain the illusion that the scourge was under control. Where a loose infirmary of wooden shacks had plied their trade at water’s edge, there was now a “modern” hospital, imposingly designed perhaps to give the futility of care a glaze of social consent.
What ghosts roamed these ruins? What anguish bred by confinement shuddered through these rooms no more? And what, intermixed with the cawing of gulls and the whistle of tugs, barges and pleasure boats some 120 years later, was I to make of it all?
The contradiction spoke for itself, and even to this day with one structure having finally collapsed, the other declared an “historical treasure,” the hospital reserves its truancy from time, mocking progress with its silence and indifference, turrets poised like mummified lips to drink in the last ounce of twilight, an aura of tungsten stars stuttering on around it…
Ruin is not merely a term, its significance courses through time, cultures, nations. It knows no place because it thrives anyplace we have forgotten what it was that drove us, compelling us to actions whose gain filters off without return.
That house across the street, unpainted, its porch scorched by a momentary fire, the old tattered shades drawn awry, peopled perhaps – but who are they, where do they come from, how do they live…?
How many times I have stood before such places, and wondered what it was that kept me there, I cannot say.
Excessive visited ruins, diminished abandoned spaces inhabited by rats and snakes – the difference is minimal, the distinction compelling but unkind.
In the basement to an archaic Frenchman’s house, now left to the elements, built of cypress and mortared thatch, surrounded by cut cane close to the levee that bars the Mississippi from sight, I sensed I was not alone. The creaking of a sisal hammock, the planter sucking languidly on his pipe, the humming of his Creole woman over a coffee-brushed baby, stole through the rotted wood shutters toward a heat stroke horizon.
Time distilled to an opalescent point, where specters shimmered in the dull damp mud-stained light…
Was it 1780 or 1810, 1954, or 1989, 2003 or…
Sade’s La Coste? An uninteresting ruin, a ruin that does little justice to the genius of the man, in whose fevers of lust and umor fulgurant flesh-bled ruins blazed with a clarity that imposes and disposes…
The railroad warehouses along the Hudson, now no more, but which gave me, as I walked through and around them, an empty taste of freedom that Manhattan refused, so pitched in on itself was its beehive complexity that the air at times turned to asphyxiating syrup… packing hooks hanging like great snares to those sensible enough to take them, mouth up, squirming in the still metaphysical grip of an unquenchable longing to flee, to dissipate in the receding rectangular maw of black broken by a pigeon’s wings…
The Penn Central Yards just south of Riverside Park finally erased for the next installment of penthouse living…
And what of Sarajevo or Mostar, Europe’s most recent paean to genocide with their shell-scarred walls, craterous interiors thick with rubble, courtyards hemorrhaging brick dust, sudden explosions frozen in time despite new whitewash and frantic rebuilding? Do these places slip so quickly into forgetfulness that in years to come the ferocious assaults will seem too distant, relics of a hatred that returned despite our better judgment as a national project to gut history? Is it enough that the office tower of the celebrated Sarajevo daily, Oslobodjenje, remains as it was after the attacks, half-fallen in on itself like some twisted skeleton of hope, a modern ruin that entombs the siege in its mute tango with disaster?
The absent body of the corpse returns, hideous lens turned inward, where the image of a touch disintegrates without consequence, torturous divination to what I am, was and will be, the door that leads nowhere, appalling shattered monuments to industry, monstrous craft by which I measure my time…
From the outline of a body on the street through the vision of a poet I learned to love framed by murder of cosmic intensity and mundane efficacity, I came to myself and passed through myself tethered to what is by what was, this ravaging absence that funnels through my chest and spreads across my skin with the invisible pall of the plague…
There is no fantasy to ruins. Ruins fantasize us, and we walk in their shadows, struck at last to find one in fact, obdurate transparency, throwing off whatever sanctions we give it if only to make ourselves feel more alive within it.
Siren ruins, ruined sirens… in thrall to your rotted voice…
We live in a society that prides itself not only on sanitizing the most poetically resonant ruins, whether by demolition or not, including an incipient form of revalorization that ties them to museums, but which also takes pride in “saving” our memory of them, not understanding how easily that memory can turn into nostalgia – itself a very pale affectation – of an encounter that can startle and shock; an encounter that reveals a vital magnetic link between desire and material form – in a phrase, between the unconscious and the real, and which in our “managed” time becomes less, not more, possible, save when we can’t avoid it.
We have already lost too much of our capacity to invigorate our lives directly not to rail against any form of experience, including the esthetic, that sanctions a diminution of the intensity of meaning; for significance here is all that matters in the end. The ruin remade into metaphor is still that ruin, and whether we like it or not returns to us a desire to seek, more forcefully yet, what chance may bring in the place we live, not the cultural palace or dungeon we visit by design. Ruins need no official stamp, no cultural identity other than what each of us brings to the moment we discover them for ourselves alone in all their abrupt intrusiveness.
At the same time it is also clear that society has absorbed into itself its own mechanisms of ruination, sustaining them in secret or in the full glare of day if for no other purpose than to revive, in fits and fragments, a self-reflection shattered by ruin. Look about: where the horizon of the present fades to the judgments of history smoke and ash pile upwards from pyre after pyre.
No wonder that even the most hopeful gaze will shudder before a ruin, reliving a sudden vertiginous stripping away of options elsewhere. It is this ruin alone that absorbs the time you give to it, remaking time in the image and reality of ruin. Nor does it matter where the ruin is, city or country; for whether it appears impulsively dressed in torn posters and graffiti or in a field once farmed but now turned wild, intertwined creepers and bushes its thick vegetable chorus, an irreducible content, both spectral and real, draws and confounds us.
For that ruin mirrors in X-ray all we were and might become. And we carry the infective light as if we were pregnant…rich with portent in the whirring vacuum of thought…
Detested ruin, loved in fear, fearfully lost, regained, lost and sought again…